I don’t like Batman. Like an old pair of tennis shoes or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies, Batman is something I grew out of. It’s hard to relate to a rich white dude who works out his pathos by investing in the militarisation of vigilantes and police instead funnelling cash into the crumbling infrastructure that produces his rogue gallery. And then I played Batman: Arkham VR.
That’s the new PS4-exclusive virtual reality game from Rocksteady, which you might remember as the company that ended the brutal streak of shitty superhero games with Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. You also might remember Rocksteady as the company that ran poor Bruce and company into the ground with the fun to play but narratively terrible Batman: Arkham Knight.
Arkham VR almost completely makes up for that misstep. It’s only an hour long, and in truth it’s more a demonstration of what VR can do than any kind of genuine game, but in that hour my pulse raced, my breath hitched and I had brief moments of empathising with a superhero I usually describe as “bitch arse”.
It’s biggest moment is one of Batman’s most clichéd: The death of his parents at the hands of Joe Chill. We’ve seen that double murder so many times it’s less a childhood tragedy Bruce Wayne needs to get the hell over, and more of a joke.
But Batman: Arkham VR puts you in tiny Brucie’s shoes. He’s not an adult with shitty coping mechanisms, he’s a little kid hiding behind his mother’s skirt as a villain lurks in the darkness. And when his parents fall and it’s just you staring down the shining barrel of Joe Chill’s gun tunnel vision sets in. The gun is small and barely a metre away, but it feels large and ominous. Not unlike staring down the barrel of a real gun (please never do that).
The first time I played it the scene instantly had me sweating and panting like I’d just taken the dog out for a jog. I whipped off the headset and had to pace the room and will the shaking in my hands to stop. It was all a game — not real in the least. Yet somehow Rocksteady and forced me into a kid’s shoes as he witnessed a double murder and suddenly that murder didn’t feel as funny any more.
The headset you wear when using PlayStation VR is a lot bigger than other VR headsets and there’s a thick layer of plastic that gently presses to your cheeks and forehead, but over the hour of Arkham VR things get claustrophobic — the walls subtly, slowly, close in. Then the innocuous headset you’re wearing starts to feel tight and confining like Batman’s cowl might. Mirrors dot the game and constantly remind you of exactly who you are playing — which only adds to the bizarre sensation of being a towering dude in tights and a kevlar mask.
The game wisely reinforces that notion of powerlessness first presented at the hands of Joe Chill, and time and again you’ll find yourself playing the world’s greatest detective as people he loves are brutally murdered in front of him. You can’t do anything to stop it, and that initial rush of fear resurfaces over and over again.
Until you’re trapped in a tiny cell and the awfulness of Batman’s world closes in.
Batman still might not be my favourite hero, but after an hour in his shoes I have a helluva lot more respect for comics’ lousiest lay.